With retail foot traffic slowly coming back, brands are starting to test the waters of post-pandemic physical retail via pop-ups.

Brands like Studs, Rails, Louis Vuitton and Dior have opened or are opening pop-up shops in April and May, in an attempt to gauge their customers’ interest in shopping in-person or to test new markets. 

WS Development’s Boston Seaport shopping district is the home of several pop-ups opening this week at The Current, its rotating retail space. Donoso has helped guide the creation of pop-ups from brands like Studs and denim brand Injeanius, which are set to host stores there until through the end of the summer. After pausing all pop-ups in March 2020, Donoso said it wasn’t long after the development company reopened the space in the winter that traffic started to come back. There are nine retail spaces in The Current, and six brands are participating this season.

“Omnichannel is so important right now,” said Carina Donoso, senior director of retail experience and incubation at WS Development. “There’s so much shopping online right now, but you need a physical presence to stand out. And there’s a graduated step to doing that. Retail is a huge investment, but a pop-up can help you test the market. You get so much data from it about who your customer is and how they shop. You can use that for [strategizing around] everything from a permanent store to your marketing and messaging.”

Anna Harman, co-founder and CEO of piercing and jewelry brand Studs, said that regional placement of pop-ups and retail is important. For the brand’s third permanent store, which opened earlier this month in Austin, the brand chose an area where it already had a strong online audience. Texas is its third-largest market. But Boston, while a source of some sales, is not one of its biggest markets, Harman said. Instead, the brand is hoping the pop-up and foot traffic moving through Boston Seaport will work to acquire customers.

“We’ve been looking at Boston as a permanent market for a while, and we still are,” Harman said. “We think the city has our target demographic in spades. It’s a huge college town, and there are tons of young people and Gen Z, which is exactly who we’re looking for.”

Studs currently has three permanent stores, including Austin and two in New York. It has plans to open two more in Los Angeles this summer, though they won’t be preceded by pop-ups since L.A. is an established online market for the brand. Lisa Bubbers, co-founder and CMO of Studs, said a successful pop-up in Boston will lead to a permanent store there in the future, as well.

Other brands have been opening pop-ups to test the post-pandemic waters of retail. Rails is opening a Paris pop-up in May, and Stella McCartney is currently hosting several at its London store focused on local small businesses. Sustainable loungewear brand Pangaia opened at pop-up in London-based Selfridges in early April, and L.A.-based shoe brand Mia Becar is running one in West Hollywood until June. 

Notably, many of these new stores are especially conceptual or experiential. Studs is making piercing appointments a major component of its pop-up, and it’s implemented standout design elements like a giant ear sculpture. Meanwhile Louis Vuitton’s NYC SoHo pop-up shop, opened on Apr. 2, was built to look like it’s underwater for maximum Instagramability.

According to Donoso, this is an essential component for brands when thinking about the future of retail. 

“With retail, it’s like you’re on a stage,” Donoso said. “You have to put on a performance. A store needs to be more than just racks of clothes. People can browse that online and, after the pandemic, many of them are. You need something more than that to get people to come into the store.”